The afternoon of May 22, 2011, was warm and muggy in Joplin, Mo. That’s not unusual for May.
The warm air sucked colder air from the north, creating a huge thunderstorm. That storm became a tornado that touched down just east of the Kansas state line. Damage was minor in rural areas near Joplin, but the tornado intensified and developed multiple vortexes as it ripped through the city's densely populated southwest corner.
At its zenith, the tornado was an EF5 — a rating reserved for the most violent tornados — with winds peaking at an estimated 250 mph and a swath nearly a mile wide.
This monster tossed pickup trucks like toys, stripped the bark off trees whose branches were replaced by mattresses and scraps of sheet metal, ripped a hospital apart and collapsed a high school (thankfully unoccupied) like a pack of cards. The Joplin tornado killed at least 158 people, injured nearly a thousand and left many more homeless. Some estimates say up to a quarter of the city was destroyed.
See a video of the high school
People all over the world saw the horrifying aftermath and wondered how they could help. Columbia College’s Fort Leonard Wood campus; Kim Nowak Watson '91 and her husband, Tom Watson, a Columbia College art professor; Edith Herd, administrative assistant with the Division of Adult Higher Education and her husband, Kevin, did more than wonder.
Columbia College–Fort Leonard Wood, located about three hours northeast of Joplin, hosted a 5K run/walk in July which drew 249 participants and local business owners who donated food and supplies. The event raised more than $2,000 for a second grade classroom at Cecil Floyd Elementary School in Joplin. “Our teacher, Mrs. Zeuschner, is very grateful that her students will not go without when school starts in August,” reports Felisha Richards, academic advisor and organizations sponsor, Fort Leonard Wood.
For Herd, it was personal: her husband grew up and has family there, including his Aunt Imogene, age 93.
Here are excerpts from their stories.
Kim Nowak Watson:
“Once we arrived in Joplin and were bused out to "the field," we were dropped off at the first residential street just east of the infamous hospital [St. John’s]. Quite a thing after seeing it all over the news, to then be right there. The sight made you cry, the smell was horrendous. We stepped off the bus into what used to be a neighborhood. They told us, okay, start anywhere and we all said, ‘Where do we begin?’"
“My husband’s aunt’s house was six blocks west of St. John’s and was leveled by the tornado. What we did was try to help go through the debris from her house and find anything that might have made it through.”
Imogene Smith is 93 but robust enough to live alone. She had the presence of mind to lock up her checkbook — then the tornado blew her house away and her with it. As she was crawling out from under the rubble, a neighbor saw and helped he out just as thunderous hail began. Miraculously, she escaped with just stitches.
Imogene was particularly upset about the loss of her husband’s Purple Heart and a vase with a deeply personal note inside from World War II, the first gift her husband sent from the South Pacific.
The odds of finding medal or vase were astronomical but the vase was recovered. Intact. With the note still inside.
“Devastation puts it mildly,” said Edith Herd. “All landmarks to know which street you are on are gone. Someone started spray painting the street names on some of the curbs.”
“The tornado was an act of nature but that anyone survived is an act of God,” added Kevin Herd.
As of publication time, some Joplin residents are still living in a tent city while waiting for temporary housing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to open up. These tents are not air-conditioned and temperatures reached 106 in Joplin in early August.
Joplin schools also have critical needs; go to http://brightfuturesjoplin.org/adopt-a-classroom to find how you can help. Numerous other organizations in your community are pitching in to help the Joplin victims; find one you are comfortable with and donate what you can — your money, your time, the use of your vehicle, your muscles.
The refugees’ needs will become critical with the advent of cold weather.